After Sept. 11, 2001, Sandy Tilley and her husband moved to Charlotte from Atlanta to be closer to family. Tilley, then in her late 50s, envisioned opening a restaurant and playing golf in the afternoons.
“That seemed like a really good plan to me,” said Tilley, who is a member and deacon of Ramah Presbyterian Church. But after completing a program on Rick Warren's book, “The Purpose-Driven Life,” Tilley realized that her retirement would be much different.
“I realized I had a talent, and this is what God has given me, and I needed to do something,” she said.
Tilley said she's always been interested in cooking, and her mother, a nurse, had instilled in her “the art of giving to others and helping others.” Tilley knew she could combine those gifts in a soup kitchen.
After working at Royal & SunAlliance in Charlotte for five years, she turned in her notice.
Tilley was almost 65, and it was time to get on with her dream.
Rallying the community: Tilley, 66, began looking around the Huntersville area for a place to put her soup kitchen. She found an ideal location at New Friendship Presbyterian Church, which has a lot of land, is centrally located and is on the bus line. With the help of Annie Brown and new pastor Eulando Henton, New Friendship agreed to let Tilley build her soup kitchen there.
As word got out, Tilley was flooded with calls from people who wanted to help. Hearts and Hammers, a building ministry at the church, offered free labor and oversight of the project if Tilley would provide the materials.
She raised almost $90,000 through a fundraiser hosted and managed by Independence Hill Baptist Church and by talking to family, friends and churches about her dream.
“It was a community effort like I have never seen before,” Tilley said.
In a week, Hearts and Hammers built a 1,960-square-foot building with a dining room, commercial kitchen, bathrooms and prep room. Volunteers from 15 churches helped.
After waiting four months for a sewer permit, Angels & Sparrows soup kitchen will open at 9 a.m. Oct. 6. Tilley expects to have about 175 volunteers trained and ready to work.
Nutrition and friendship: Tilley has learned that many elderly people who come to soup kitchens will show up two hours before lunch is served because they don't want to sit at home, where it's lonely. Angels & Sparrows will open at 9 a.m. so people can read and talk.
“I think hunger is a basic need, but fellowship and having somebody that looks forward to seeing you every day – I think that will do almost as much good as getting a meal,” Tilley said.
Angels & Sparrows will not serve junk food or meals with “empty calories,” Tilley said. She worries that people who come to soup kitchens, especially the elderly, don't eat well.
Her menus will be planned around unsold produce that area farmers have agreed to donate. Tilley has canned tomatoes, and she stocked her freezer for the soup kitchen.
“I want them to have nourishing, healthy, stick-to-your-ribs, tasty food,” Tilley said. “I'm going to cook it like they're my family. It's just as easy to cook something good as it is to throw something together that has no nutritional value.”